During the 2016 Presidential campaign, there was a great deal of talk about “Populism.” Political figures throughout history have painted themselves as populists. From Donald Trump to Silvio Berlusconi to Hugo Chávez, populism has been a label many have embraced on their ascension to political power.
But Populism can be tricky to define.
There are a lot of different definitions for the term, and many books have been written that try to answer the simple question – what is populism? In a broad sense though, populism is a political concept in which ordinary citizens feel alienated or exploited and want their interests to prevail over those of the privileged elite, who act on their own behalf.
As both an ideology and a political movement, it can be a powerful concept because it isn’t necessarily affiliated with the right or left of a particular political party. There is no universal or common ideology that defines what populism is. A vast over-simplification of the term could just be “the people” vs “the establishment.”
Origins of US Populism
In the US, the term populism’s historical roots date back to the 1880s. After the Civil War, farmers in the Midwest and the South protested the impact of industrialization. They were suffering because of dropping cotton prices, bank lending policies, the rising costs of new machinery, and drought in the Great Plains.
Debt and unrest led to a movement called the Farmer’s Alliance, which formed their own political party in 1892 under the banner of the People’s Party, but more commonly known as the Populists. The Populists wanted to nationalize railroads, advocated an eight-hour workday, and opposed the gold standard, among other things. In 1892, Populist presidential candidate James B. Weaver won 8.5 percent of the vote (1,027,329 votes). Weaver carried Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, Nevada, and received electoral votes from Oregon and North Dakota.
Largely due to the defeat of William Jennings Bryan to William McKinley in the 1896 presidential election, the movement declined, and the party ultimately merged with the Democratic party. However, populist movements have continued to reemerge in American politics. The People’s Party was primarily a populist movement of the left, while Right-wing populism would eventually come to the US in the 1930s.
Populism in the 20th Century
Taking a cue from Bryan’s slogan to make “every man a king, but no one wears a crown,” Louisiana Governor and later Senator Huey Long remains a prominent figure in the history of US populism. The Great Depression ushered in an era of extreme poverty, and many Americans became aware of the stark divisions between economic classes – divisions that only became wider after the stock market crash of 1929. Huey Long was elected governor of Louisiana in 1928 because of his promises to redistribute wealth. These promises were an especially popular sentiment among the poor in Louisiana, who saw their state as being run by “big oil” interests (at the time, Standard Oil) and cronyism.
Long began a series of immense infrastructural and public works improvements, including the building of hospitals, bridges, roads, and educational institutions. Despite opposition from oil executives and corporate interests, Long carried out these projects by taxing oil producers. He subsequently became massively popular among the citizens of Louisiana and was elected to the US Senate in 1932, where he began his fight to introduce legislation that would tax rich peoples’ entire wealth and cap their net worth at $100 million. Many senators felt these measures were too radical, and the bill failed to gain traction.
Long, unflappable in his principles, began the “Share the Wealth” club to garner popular support for his ideas. By the summer of 1935, his radio show had over 25 million listeners, and he received over 60,000 letters per week from his supporters. Unfortunately, Long’s plans were cut short when he was assassinated by the son-in-law of a political rival later that year. Nevertheless, he remains one of the most prominent and storied figures in the history of American populism.
Populism doesn’t always align with left wing or progressive ideals. McCarthyism, the politico-cultural movement that attempted to seek out communists or communist “sympathizers” from positions of power, garnered widespread support from the more conservative segments of the American population. Senator Joseph McCarthy, from whom the term “McCarthyism” derives, claimed that there were a large number of Communists and Soviet spies in the US government. His ideas became popular not only among anti-communists, but also among those against growing internationalism and public health services.
After World War II, the closing of the Iron Curtain and growing political power of the Soviet Union culminated in the vilification of communism and anything with even tenuous ideological links to communism or socialism, such as labor unions. The House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee – and later McCarthy’s inquiry board – questioned, blacklisted, and imprisoned hundreds of people accused of having ties to the USSR or to the US Communist Party. Anti-Communist actions had widespread support among conservative Americans who felt communism was an imminent threat to their country.
Anti-civil rights groups and pro-racial segregation politicians rode on a similar wave of right-wing populism in the 1950s and well into the 1970s. George Wallace, former Alabama Governor, was the figurehead of the populist movement that opposed desegregation. Historians argue that Wallace pandered to poor whites in Alabama who felt threatened by the notion of increasing the social mobility of African-Americans. Besides being pro-segregation, Wallace was known for attacking those with immense, concentrated wealth, much like his populist predecessors Long and Bryan. Because he sought to address the biggest concerns of his (white) constituents, Wallace is characterized as being a populist.
Populism is far from being a US-only movement. Some historians have characterized the French Revolution of the late 18th century as being populist in nature, despite being led by intellectuals. Even the English Civil War (1642-1651), wherein King Charles I was dethroned, executed, and replaced with Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, has been characterized as a populist war due to the mobilization of the lower classes.
Perhaps the most immediate examples of contemporary populism are the left-wing politicians that have dominated the governments of many South American countries throughout the twentieth century. But it’s not just left wing populists who have been gaining traction in recent years. France’s populist far right National Front party, led by the controversial Marine Le Pen, has been gaining popularity due to their staunch law-and-order and anti-immigrant stances. A few scholars consider the Brexit vote to be the result of a populist movement, as it was opposed by many establishment interests.
Populism is difficult to define in strict terms because it extends beyond our typical right/left wing understanding of politics. Nevertheless, the repercussions of past populist movements have taught us to question the promises that politicians make during their campaign.
Derek Pharr is Vice President of Products at Sporcle and an occasional writer of random topics and bad jokes. He also has an odd addiction to Taylor Swift songs and hates white foods.